By Misha Grunbaum
Photo courtesy of the author

Photo courtesy of the author

What does Black Balloon love if not strange, wonderful books that upend our traditional ideas of a story? As the book reviews manager, I spend much of the year researching titles for us to explore, from Alice Munro's latest collection (our blogger Kayla revealed its parallels to RuPaul’s All Star Drag Race to Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue (here's Brian Fee’s soul-heavy soundtrack). Now that it’s December, I’d love to highlight a few of the most unusual titles of 2012. Whether you favor fiction, history, or sequential art, there's something for you among these five books.

Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son
In the past year, North Korea lost a dictator, had a failed missile launch, and somehow scored six medals at the London Olympics. But In the absence of any translated North Korean literature, Adam Johnson traveled to the barely-surviving totalitarian regime and wrote The Orphan Master’s Son, a tragicomic novel about Pak Jun Do (a literal John Doe) who unwittingly makes it to the top of Pyongyang’s bureaucracy. Despite the strangeness of the premise, Johnson claims that everything that could be factual actually is. “You don’t think North Korea is science fiction?” Johnson asked in an interview. “I keep waiting for Kim Jong Il to come back to life, because this is the one country where that could actually happen.”

Chris Ware’s Building Stories
Chris Ware, who blazed his way into the graphic-novel canon with Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, was never happy with formulas. In Building Stories, he dispenses with the usual bound-book format, providing instead a board-game-size box that contains booklets, tabloids, posters, flipbooks, and other ephemera. At the heart of his drawings is an apartment building and its inhabitants; the different components move the reader through different times and characters, a whole vastly greater than the sum of its parts.

Laurent Binet’s HHhH
Forget Bring Up the Bodies and Robert Caro’s ongoing LBJ biography; Laurent Binet’s HHhH takes the prize for most unusual historical work of the year. It’s about the Holocaust and the Reinhard Heydrich, the “Butcher of Prague” (the title stands for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich, “Himmler’s brain is named Heydrich”) — but at the same time, it’s about the writing of HHhH. “I’m still not sure about the veracity of all the Heydrich anecdotes I’m collecting,” the author-cum-narrator interjects midway through his novel, but he writes down everything he can: the color of a car, the thoughts of Heydrich’s Czech assassins, the way in which a grenade fails to kill the mass murderer but causes him to die of infection much later. And through all this Binet’s own quest, to find answers where there are none, combines his life and his loves into a strange, unforgettable book.

Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair
Mikhail Shishkin
, who’s won three of Russia’s biggest literary prizes, is quite possibly the country’s best chance for a Nobel Prize in Literature. In Maidenhair, an interpreter translates for a Swiss officer and numerous expatriates seeking asylum there — but the interviews quickly blur with a history of Persia he’s reading, letters being written to his own son, the diaries of a singer, and the interpreter’s own dreams and hallucinations. Eras and lives interweaves in a single pageDaphnis and Chloe hear a streetcar; the narrator wonders of his sleeping companion, “Where did the girl swim to at night, one arm forward, under the pillow, the other hand back, palm up and you so wanted to kiss that palm but you were afraid to wake her up?" The result is a gorgeous, phantasmagoric dream of a novel that refuses to leave upon waking.

Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Fifty-Year Sword
What kind of book forces you to turn the pages sideways and lift them up as the characters unlock the hinges of a box inside? A Mark Z. Danielewski book, of course. After House of Leaves and Only Revolutions, the author expanded a ghost story into a gorgeous book with thousands of stitched threads illuminating the pages. In case the author didn’t have enough Danielewskiheads trailing him at his appearances, the book’s likely to turn a few more heads towards his brilliantly bizarre oeuvre.

And that’s only 2012! Keep your eyes peeled next year for a doorstop from William Gass, an Italian-language novel titled New Finnish Grammar, and, following in the footsteps of genre-bending books like this and this, more goodness from Black Balloon.